Writing better bass lines - making great parts

How to write better basslines: The 4 ingredients

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My students often ask me how they can create better basslines for their songs. To answer this question, you should ask yourself what makes a bass line good in the first place. If you ask this question to 5 different people, the answers will undoubtedly vary some. However, I expect there are a few common things everyone can agree on. This article focuses on four things every good bass part has.

#1 It works great with the harmony

As I’ve already said before in different articles on this website, one of our most important tasks as bass players is to outline harmony. So if your bass part does that, you’re already doing a big part of your job! To write a bass part that works with the harmony, the first thing you should do, is use your ears. Does it sound good to you? Or are some notes you are choosing not feeling right? Your imagination is a powerful thing, however sometimes you can get stuck and need a new plan.

To get a new impulse and some fresh ideas, you can try incorporating your arpeggios, pentatonics, your modes and some chromatism. Do these words sound like an alien language? Then you would probably be wise to invest some time in studying your harmony. Be sure to check out one (or all) of the articles listed below to learn more about harmony:

  1. How do chords work? Major, minor and diminished
  2. How do chords work? Seventh and extended chords
  3. Using the pentatonic scales in basslines
  4. How do you use modes on bass?

#2 It works great with the other parts in the song

Making a good arrangement is like designing a house. You have to make sure all parts connect in the right way and work together nicely so nothing collapses on you.

As a bass player, the drummer is your buddy. So always be sure to lock in with him or her. This means being aware what the kick pattern is, what subdivisions are being played on the cymbals, where the snare hits are, etc. Together, you are the foundation of the band and without a great foundation it really doesn’t matter how pretty the rest of the house you’re building is.

Also, you should be aware what the other band members are playing. Music is a conversation, so leave room for other people to tell their story and refrain from overplaying and killing the space in the music. A good arrangement has room to breathe.

A lot of less experienced players have the tendency to play a fill every 4 or 8 bars. Nobody wants to hear two or more instrumentalist play different fills at the same time just for the sake of playing a fill.

Tips for writing like an arranger

Some ideas you should pursue when it comes to writing parts in relation to other parts in the arrangement:

  1. Lock in with the kick drum by doubling it or possibly even playing off it (if that is the vibe you want to create).
  2. Look for intertwining parts or double/supplement the part a guitar/piano/horn/etc. is playing.
  3. If the people around you are playing busy parts, your best choice is to choose a more simple and basic part. Be the glue that keeps everything together and helps the listener make sense of everything that is going on.
  4. Always serve the song and never play from ego. We know you can double thump, but not every ballad needs it.
  5. Add dynamics. This means playing softer when the song demands it, adding some volume when the band is building or climaxing and quieting down after a climax to make the impact even bigger.
  6. It’s possible and pleasant to have certain spots in the song without bass. The listener will love you for not playing sometimes.

#3 It adds feeling to (a part of) the song

A good bass part has an effect on the feeling of the song. When you play 8th notes for example, it adds drive to the song. Playing melodic parts higher on the neck, can leave the listener dreaming about better times. Using very low distorted long notes adds heaviness, beefiness or sometimes even uneasiness to a listener’s experience. Be aware what the feeling is you want to convey and make clear decisions about it. You can accentuate what another player is already doing, or you can play something that’s quite the opposite if that is what the song asks of you.

For example, If you listen to the Fearless Flyers, every player is playing sixteenth notes which gets the listener in this crazy energetic vibe. The effect is created by accentuating the 16th drive. If you would however have a slow blues, your task as a bass player is to play a part that is consistent and accentuates the pulse. In this situation you would do exactly the opposite of what a guitar soloist would do. If you would also play as free and lyrical as the guitarist does, every listener would get tired and lost in a matter of seconds. The song demands someone to be the pulse-keeper and someone who gives the listener context to what’s going on.

#4 It has something fun and unique to it

Make it your goal to be one of the “part guys”. There are certain bass players who are just amazing at finding a great unique part. To me, one of the best examples of this is James Jamerson. His bass parts were so iconic that they often became the hook of the song. Arrangers working for Motown would even write horn parts based on the bass tracks played by James.

What can I do to fuel this creativity? Good question! What really helps, is listening to a lot of players. Listen to all kinds of of music and transcribe parts you like. You can transcribe bass parts, but to work on your melodic skills, don’t limit yourself to just bass. You can get inspiration from guitar players, horn players, singers, you name it.

Also, be sure to check out my series “Groove Backpack“. I’ve created catchy basslines, recorded videos where I play them with a backing track, and made a transcription in bass tab and musical notation. Furthermore, I explain why the bassline works and explain which scales and modes I’ve used.

Check it out via:

Things you should learn to write better basslines

So to sum it up, a good bass part works great with the harmony, works great with the other parts in the song (especially the drum-part), adds something to the song like groove, drive or melody and has something fun and unique to it.

If you convert these four characteristics into the skill-set you need to possess to write better basslines, it might look something like this:

  1. You need a sense of what works over the harmony (if your ears get stuck, be sure to know your theory).
  2. Be aware of what other players are doing and how your parts interact.
  3. Find different ways to lock in with a drummer and makes it one of your top priorities.
  4. Determine what you want to add to the song and know how you can add it.
  5. Add creativity to your basslines and make them unique.
  6. Listen to numerous other players and learn from the greats. Transcribe basslines you like and determine what makes them great.

As mentioned before, be sure to check out my series called Groove Backpack. I record cool bass grooves and explain how and why they work. It expands your bass vocabulary and hopefully inserts new creativity in your playing.

You might also enjoy my lesson about how you should go about adding extra notes to your basslines. You can find it via “Create your own basslines: Adding to the root notes“.

I hope you found this article helpful! Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are and if you have any questions or suggestions.


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